Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Good and the Stinky

I'm interrupting my regularly scheduled "too long between blog posts" mojo to provide you with some retail information that may or may not aid you one day.

First, the good. Which WAS preceded by some bad news, at least for me. M. and I are faithful coffee drinkers, and each morning we brew a pot of coffee, fill up our travel coffee mugs, and trot off to work with them. We always try to have a couple sets of travel mugs on hand because M. NEVER washes his coffee mug at work (I USUALLY do, but not always), and it's good to have some back ups if we haven't run the dishwasher or one of us left a mug at work. Long ago we purchased some Thermos brand coffee mugs that have served us oh-so-well. They fit in our cup holders, they have an easy lid to use (though they aren't leak proof if you tip them over), and they keep coffee warm for a ridiculous amount of time (read: three-ish hours). We LOVE these mugs. Love. And we haven't been able to find more of them. We've purchased several cheap travel mugs over the years to supplement the Thermos mugs, and they all universally suck. The coffee gets cold nearly immediately, they break easily, and the lids leak a ridiculous amount - one was so difficult to drink from that I ended up spilling all over myself (from tipping the cup up too high) at least a half dozen times. Not fun during a work meeting. But it was OK, because at least we had our trusty Thermos mugs to fall back on.

Well. During M.'s last work trip, the one where he was gone from Thursday through Monday during a three-day weekend? And the kids woke me up multiple times each night? And I MAY have stayed up a bit too late one night watching the Downtown Abbey finale? Needless to say, I was feeling a bit wiped out that weekend. And so I brought my ration of caffeine with me to the 10 a.m. birthday party Finn was invited to, in my beloved, paint-peeling, dinged-up Thermos mug.

Which I promptly left behind at the party venue when I bundled us back home.

Woe and sadness!!

I immediately hopped online, resolved with myself that I wouldn't "cheap out" (this was before Austerity!), and scoured Amazon for the best mug possible that could be delivered to my house within 2 business days. And I did it, I finally did it - I found the perfect travel mug!

Behold, a thing of beauty, the Thermos Stainless King 16-ounce Leak-Proof Travel Mug!:

At just over $20, these are not cheap (for a mug). But trust me, it has been money well spent! I bought two, one with a handle (for M. - he prefers a handle he can clutch while he runs to catch the train - quite literally, often) and one without (for moi). We've been using these mugs for about three weeks now, and I can honestly say that I haven't missed my old mug once. This Thermos mug keeps my coffee even hotter than the old one (five hours! The coffee is warm five hours later!), and better yet, it's leak proof (well, as long as it is "closed", which didn't help me when I rattled through the parking lot with the open mug in the front basket of a grocery cart and it tipped over and spilled coffee all over a bag of groceries. But when it's closed, it's leak proof!).

That is a story that has a happy ending. This next one, not so much.

As part of our "Austerity!" effort, I made a bunch of food about a week and a half ago, and froze the extra to save for later. I made refried beans (with this recipe) that are SO GOOD! And marinara sauce (from this recipe) which is also SO GOOD! And I was psyched to have all this awesome, frugal, yummy food waiting for me to use in the freezer, neatly labeled and stored away in ziploc freezer bags.

Yesterday I thawed a bag of the marinara to use on top of calzones. And discovered that my awesome marinara sauce? Now tastes like dryer sheets. The freezer bags we had (and that I unknowingly bought) were Ziploc "Fresh Shield" freezer bags. I guess the "fresh shield" is supposed to keep food from getting a freezer funk smell, maybe? I don't know, but what I do know is that it tasted BAD. Why would you ever store food in something that smells like dryer sheets? Apparently it's supposed to (according to Walmart) lock in freshness and help food retain nutrients. I refuse to link to the product because I canNOT recommend that you buy it.

And now I have several bags of food in the freezer destined to turn whatever meal I pair them with into the scent of fresh laundry. Which is great on laundry, don't get me wrong. Just not so great with food. I'm currently trying to "off gas" the refried beans I'm goint to use to make burritoes tonight in an open container in the fridge to see if that helps.

Just some friendly shopping tips, from me to you :-).

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Life Without Cable, Part I

I jotted down some notes about our initial experiences without cable:

Night 1 (Tuesday of this week): The bottom line? Suck. The cable was officially turned off today, and we can’t figure out how to get our TV to receive regular digital broadcasting. Seems we may need an antenna? Not sure. Ordered one from Amazon that will get here in two-ish days, pending the outcome of the “Snowquester” that is supposed to hit tonight. In the meantime, tried watching Suburgatory on Major suck. The show stopped to buffer/load every 15 seconds or less. Gave up after 15 minutes of frustrating effort and only about 65 seconds of actual programming viewed. No TV tonight. This isn’t looking good, but I’m willing to admit it’s too soon to tell. On the plus side, I may find more time to read on my hands…

Night 2: An improvement, by far. Today was a snow day (that was lacking in much actual snow, sadly), and the kids spent a fair amount of time watching kid shows on Netflix through the Wii that is connected to the living room TV (did you know there was a She-Hulk? Like half the girls born in the ‘80’s, her name was Jennifer). In the evening, M. and I could have paid bills and finished our taxes, but instead we drank red wine, ate minty brownies (from scratch! I rock!), and watched mindless sitcoms. Since we are still Roku-less (UPS sissy-ed out on the whole “delivering in mildly wintry weather” situation), we hooked up the laptop to our TV with an HDMI cable and watched a couple of episodes of Modern Family and the Suburgatory episode I couldn’t get through the night before on Hulu Plus. Overall it worked pretty well (no buffering! Ha – the first time I typed that I wrote “buggering.” There was also no buggering, that’s true), but scenes with rapid movement were pretty jerky, especially on the Modern Family episodes. Overall, I consider it a win.

Night 3: The Roku has arrived. It is fairly simple to set up. Soon we are up and running and watching a couple of episodes of Raising Hope via Hulu Plus. There is no issue with any “jerky” scenes at all – an improvement over the night before.

Night 4: Since it’s a Friday, the kids get to watch TV after school. I fire up the Wii and launch Netflix. Finn is in time out (dude has SUCH an attitude lately!), so Lucy chooses first. We watch a 51 minute showing of various “Angelina Ballerina” episodes. She is enthralled, Finn less so. It is followed by a short episode of the Avengers. Both kids are mainly happy. Once they are in bed, Mark and I try hooking up our new antenna to the basement TV, which has just arrived. Based on where we are holding it, we can receive anywhere from 4 to 7 channels. These channels include NBC (spotty), Fox (very spotty), the CW, Qubo, and some other stuff I’ve never hear of like Ion and Ion Life. Cannot receive ABC or CBS. This is not looking good. We give up and decide to try the antenna on the living room TV tomorrow, and watch two episodes of the original Netflix series “House of Cards” instead. It’s pretty good, actually, with decent star power (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright) (side note, did you know that M. has never seen Forrest Gump? I think that’s a crime). It’s kind of like West Wing without the witty banter.

Day/Night 5: Saturday morning is easy – the kids are fully entertained by the Avengers and whatnot available on Netflix. They also throw lots of fits when the TV gets turned off, which is both normal and super annoying. M. tries the new antenna on the living room TV and finds it gets the same seven channels the basement TV does. Suck. I don’t understand this, since when we first moved to this house and didn’t have cable yet, we got lots of digital TV channels – somehow, and neither one of us can remember how. I think we are doing something wrong. However, he tries the antenna with the TV up in our bedroom, and it gets about 20 channels, including the major networks. At least there is one room in the house where M. can watch some sports. At night we watch the remake of Footloose for free from Amazon Prime down in the basement. Despite my extreme love of and loyalty to the original, I can say that the remake is pretty good. The new Ren could never be as cool as Kevin Bacon, but he’s pretty good. Julianne Hough is just too cute to be Ariel – I don’t buy her “angry rebellion.” But it’s an enjoyable hour and forty minutes. We also spend some time searching the Roku to find more TV shows, and many of them disappointingly seem to be NOT FREE. Duck Dynasty (shut up, it’s entertaining), House Hunters, all of these seem to cost $1.99 an episode through Amazon. I need to explore online more, as this seems ridiculous to me. Why would an episode of House Hunters from 2002 cost me $1.99 when I’m already an Amazon Prime member? It does seem, though, that we could watch any number of Doctor Who episodes for free…

Now you have a little bit of insight into the sick amount of TV we watch. Also, clearly this is a process we are still trying to improve/perfect. Onward, eh?

Sunday, March 3, 2013


M. and I are challenging ourselves to save as much money as we can, starting now. Good goal, right? But you're probably thinking "don't they do that already?" Well, we DO save money, that is true. We both contribute to our work-sponsored retirement accounts (plus I have pension accounts from my old employer and my current one, though your guess is as good as mine as to whether they'll actually pay out when the time comes), we put a little extra in a couple of IRA accounts each month, we contribute to college savings plans for both kids, and we have a set amount of money transferred to a savings account each month. Sounds pretty good, right?

But here's the thing. SOMETIMES, we have to pull money back out of that savings account to pay for things. Yeah, they're usually pretty big expenses, like HVAC systems or hardwood floors or yearly life insurance premiums. But still - it has been tough to really GROW that savings account, and our "liquid" savings really hasn't substantially increased ever since we bought our house back in 2007. And while that's OK for now, it crossed my mind recently that should we ever have a major life change, we're going to have to do better. We could get by for a while if one of us was laid off (says the chick who may be facing a furlough shortly), but things would be very tough after about 6 months. Hopefully we won't need to test that, of course. But we also need more money if we ever want to consider moving to a new house, be it here or somewhere else. Back when we bought our house, it was pretty easy to buy property with a 5% down payment (which is what we did), but obviously things are different now, and loans aren't as easy to come by. If (IF) we can ever sell our current house for anything close to what we owe on it, we will need to offer up 20% down on our next house. That's... a lot of money. Especially around here (or New England, where we would also consider living), and especially considering that we would be looking for an upgrade (i.e., no more townhouse!).

And the OTHER thing is that we really could be saving more, even putting aside the big-but-necessary purchases. We don't have a budget, really. We pay all our bills in full, on time, but we don't really watch our spending. We shop a lot. We eat out a lot. We eat out a lot, AND manage to spend $150-$220 on groceries every week. How is that possible? I have no idea. I don't even have teenagers yet, I still have fairly picky little kid eaters (though my god they can sock away a box of Nutrigrain bars in record time!). How we spend that much money on food is beyond me, but the fact is, we do, and then we spend probably another $100 each weekend on breakfast out, lunch out, coffee out... you get the picture.

So we are putting ourselves on a money diet, and the name of the game is "austerity!". Which is what M. and I mutter or shout to each other to help ourselves resist temptation when we're contemplating an expenditure. Looking for something to do on Saturday night and considering renting a movie through On Demand? Austerity! We watched Kingpin from our DVD collection instead. Thinking about getting a latte as we head in to the grocery store to bolster flagging energy and kid-arguing levels? Austerity! We passed. Even the kids have taken to shouting it randomly, though they don't REALLY know what it means. All they know is that it means we've changed the TV.

Because Austerity Measure #1 is:

1) Get rid of cable.

We've actually been thinking about doing this for some time. I am continually blown away by how expensive our cable/internet bill is - about $150/month (we spend the same amount on our cell phones, by the way, and all we pay for is one Blackberry with a data plan and one regular cell phone without a data plan, and no texting plans - how this adds up to $150, I have no idea - so at some point we'll be putting AT&T on the chopping block, too). We have Verizon Fios, and I can say that a) their internet is great, and b) their cable/On Demand service sucks. The interface is not user friendly, there are big lag times in working the remote, and about 50% of the time we try to watch something on On Demand, we end up having a technical difficulty of one sort or another and it doesn't work. Not a fan. Right now we have a bundle deal that costs us: $68 for cable, $37 for internet, $7 for a standard cable box (in our bedroom, we never use it), $12 for an HD box (in our living room, where the kids watch most of their TV), and $17 for an HD DVR box (in the basement family room, where M. and I watch most of our TV at night), and about $11 in taxes. Our new plan is:

1a) Keep Verizon internet, which (since it's no longer part of a bundle deal) will now cost us $85 plus tax, though we have a two year contract and some other 12-month discount that will lower it to $70 for a significant amount of time.
1b) Hulu Plus account for $8/month, which we can use to watch programming via our Wii system or on our laptops.
1c) Netflix account for $8/month, the one where you just get instant programming and not the DVDs mailed to your house. We can ALSO watch this through the Wii system or on our laptops.
1d) We moved the Wii system up to the living room for easy access to kiddie programming, which means we need something for the downstairs TV - so we have ordered a Roku box for a one-time cost of $70. This will let us watch Netflix and Hulu Plus on the "big TV."
1e) We already have an Amazon Prime membership, which we can apparently also stream through the Wii and Roku.

The total monthly cost will be $86 plus a few dollars of tax, so we'll say $92. Versus the $152 we were paying previously. The Roku box should pay for itself in less than two months.

The tricky thing will be getting used to these new systems. DVRs are SO convenient - everything is recorded in one place. We'll need to figure out which programming we need to watch through each system - kids' cartoons, older seasons of TV shows, and older movies on Netflix, some current shows on Hulu Plus, other current shows on Amazon Prime, and some that we'll just have to suck up and watch live via digital broadcasting (CBS, I'm looking at you!).

Plus, M. has to pretty much give up watching sports. Which TOTALLY stinks for him, and is probably the main reason we've been putting off making this change. And while I am known for being "less than enthusiastic" about sports and sports-viewing, know that this was NOT my idea. It was M.'s - he thinks he will be OK without the Big 10 network and ESPN. I'm not so sure.

Anyway, I'll report back after we've tried this out for a while, and let you know how it's going.

Obviously $50+ in savings on cable a month is not going to get us to our dream house. Other "Austerity!" measures we are taking include:

2) Curtailing eating out/carry out to approximately once a week. There will be times this won't work (for example, we have a couple of trips coming up where we need to eat on the road), but we will do our best (and also limit the times we DO eat out to places that are relatively inexpensive).

3) Limit Target trips to once a month. And go with a list. M. thinks we should become Walmart shoppers, but I don't know that I can go THAT far.

4) Stick to boxed wine and homebrewed beer. This will work for now, though when the weather gets a bit warmer I may need to look in to buying several bottles of a decent-but-cheap "house white" (since boxed white wine apparently hasn't progressed much beyond Almaden and Franzia in quality).

5) Try to keep the grocery bill down to around $125/week. This will be tougher now that we'll be having more meals at home, but I'm going to try my hand at cooking a few things in bulk to help keep costs down. This weekend I used the crockpot to make a big batch of marinara sauce and a HUGE batch of refried beans. I foresee a lot of spaghetti or beans & rice-type meals in our future, but I don't plan to skimp on fresh fruits/vegetables, so they'll be accompanied by some healthy stuff. And I'll still be buying a few organic things like milk, sliced cheese for the kids, and apples (they just look better than the non-organic). We'll see - this may be a moving target.

6) A general "buy less stuff" outlook. Kids are bored/we're bored? Go to the library instead of Barnes and Noble, where we always get suckered into buying new books (and often, Starbucks drinks!). Renew our National Zoo membership and go once a month instead of once every six months (and pack our own lunches!). This should get significantly easier as the weather gets warmer and we can do things like go to all the many nearby playgrounds or our neighborhood pool, which are FREE.

7) Avoid major/moderate house projects, for now. Instead, I'm hoping we can draw up a list of little no-/low-cost projects we can do to keep the house in good condition - touch up paint (needed EVERYWHERE, and we already own some, we just need to DO IT ALREADY), reorganizing/purging storage spaces, recaulking showers, deep cleaning grout, etc. We WILL do some gardening (my favorite part of spring) which will mean buying some flowers, and I would like to try my hand at refinishing one of the bathroom vanities to see how it goes. But nothing BIG, nothing EXPENSIVE (she says, inviting the house gods to kill an appliance or three).

There are a few things we won't be ditching in the name of "Austerity!" M. will still bring his shirts to the dry cleaner. We've tried saving by eliminating the dry cleaner before, and both of us HATE ironing a big ol' pile of shirts. So no. And I will continue to have our cleaning woman clean the house every other week because SANITY. And probably others, I'm sure, but hopefully this will get us closer to comfort, closer to our goals, closer to whatever comes next for us.

How about you? How do you save money? Any good ideas for us?